Stop Calling Animals “It”

The English language has lots of rules, but the one I dislike the most is assigning the personal pronoun “it” when discussing animals. People are never referred to as “it.” People pronouns are he or she, him or her and his or hers.

Human beings are living, sentient creatures who think, feel pain and joy, interact with their environment and so much more. But wait — so are animals! Then why are animals considered an it?

Historically, animals have not fared well in the human eye. We eat animals, we wear them, we use them to carry our heavy loads, we race them without regard for their welfare and we breed them in the name of money. Some get to be pets, but not even all of those escape abuse and torture at the hands of humans. The general attitude seems to be: if you are not human then you are there to serve humans’ needs. Does anyone else see something terribly wrong with this picture?

Way back in 2007, Anna West, Director of Written Communications for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) wrote to AP (Associated Press) editor Norm Goldstein asking AP to change the AP Stylebook’s (the definitive guide for journalists) grammatical rules to reflect that animals are living beings and not inanimate objects. The complete letter can be read here.

The response from AP was that the AP Stylebook already reflects that change. However, AP guidelines say, “Do not apply a personal pronoun to an animal unless its sex has been established or the animal has a name.” Otherwise “it” is the default.

Extrapolate that to mean a dog named Harry is a “he”, a mare (female horse) is a “she” and a wild turkey is an “it.”  Does that seem right to you?

For centuries, defaulting to he, him or his when human gender wasn’t known was considered correct. With the advent of women’s rights, that generally accepted grammatical style is no longer appropriate. So why then doesn’t the AP Stylebook instruct us to call humans “it” when their sex or name is unknown?

I posit that it’s because the prevailing attitude still exists that non-human animals are less important, have less value to society, and have less rights to life and happiness than human ones. That needs to change.

When I met a Greyhound named Ed, I erroneously referred to the pooch as “him” and was immediately corrected by the human family that Ed is a girl!  Knowing the name doesn’t always verify gender, does it?

It’s not only the AP Stylebook that confirms this bias. If you use spell/grammar check in commonly used word processing programs, the sentence “The dog who fell down hurt her paw” gets corrected to “The dog that fell down hurt its paw.” Of course, if you feel like I do on this subject, all you have to do is click “ignore rule” rather than “change.” Though, wouldn’t not having to always click “ignore rule” make much more sense?

The New York Times Best Seller list book by Dave Pelzer, “A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive,” chronicles an unfathomable account of child abuse experienced by the author as a young boy by his sadistic mother. The title alone makes you cringe because calling a child by the pronoun meant to describe an inanimate object just seems wrong, doesn’t it?

The reason it’s wrong is because a child is a young human being and not a thing. A table is an it; so are a coffee pot and a hammer. But a child called it? It’s counter-intuitive.

Then one can argue, and so do I, that animals who have so many of the same abilities to feel and live their lives should not be called it. It’s time to make this change.

My point here is that language is fluid; it is ever-evolving. It’s okay to make changes to grammar when the times and attitudes progress. So what are we waiting for?

A few years ago, In Defense of Animals (IDA) ran a campaign to change the term pet owner to pet guardian. This wasn’t about changing any rules, but it did raise awareness about how language can shape attitudes. Once awareness is raised, change can occur.

I would like to propose the pronoun “it” should never be considered acceptable when referring to animals, and that the substitution “s/he” become the norm. PETA’s website offers a guide to writing and speaking tips that suggests this simple change. And a very smart idea it is!

If you agree, please sign the Care2 petition asking AP Stylebook to change its rules to no longer use the pronoun “it” in reference to animals under any circumstances. Help spread the word that words matter.

No animal should ever be called “it.”


Related Reading:

Pet Owner or Pet Guardian?  Which One are You?

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Jan B.
Jan B.4 years ago

I hate to rain on your parade, but this would be very detrimental to other civil rights movements. This would have a negative effect on feminism, as well as transgender rights.

People would, if they weren't aware of the animal's anatomical sex, call an animal "he" if they weren't to call it "it". Don't assume everyone is just gonna say "he or she" right off the bat. If you believe they will, then stop dreaming! This will give feminists another issue to deal with!

Another thing is that people are going to equate the animal's genitals to gender. This is extremely inappropriate as it assumes anatomical sex determines one's pronouns. It is cissexist to assume that a human is a male if it has a penis and that a human is a female if it has a vagina. Just calling an animal "he" or "she" based on genitals is reinforcing cissexism! This is a big problem for transsexual and transgender people.

Don't get me wrong, your idea may work in other languages which have gender neutral pronouns or assign grammatical genders to animals, but one thing is for sure. This can't work in English without being offensive to women and transgender people. I will refer to all animals as "it" while speaking English, but if I were to speak other languages, that may change.

K H.
Kate H4 years ago

I saved a turtle from a busy street once and I called the turtle "it" because I didn't know the gender, all I cared about was getting the turtle to a safer place than a road full of traffic. And I've heard people refer to live lobsters as "him" when they are making a selection at Red Lobster etc, they'll be like "Hm, I want that big guy over there! Look at the size of him!" So I don't think saying "it" is necessarily an indicator of how the person who says it thinks about animals.

Rosemary H.
Rosemary H5 years ago

Some years ago I was travelling abroad and enjoyed working on a series of sketchbooks of the wild birds (and occasionally wild animals) I saw on my travels. Some could be easily sexed by colour, but many could not. So, when I wrote notes to accompany the sketches, this issue cropped up. I'm glad to say that any bird of either gender who made it into my sketchbooks was 'he', not 'it'! Apologies to all the hens but 'he or she' would often have been a bit clumsy.

Paul M.
Paul M5 years ago

MyRepost CAT C. "Cat C. Let's just say, for opinion's sake, that a fly or mosquito was in my house... I would not say to someone, "Get the fly swatter and see if you can swat him or her!" Or if a rattlesnake was in the path of a hiker, I would rather say, "Look out -- it's going to strike!" than say "Look out -- he or she is going to strike!"

I do not think the use of the word "it", even for dogs and cats, encourages people to consider animals in lesser or derogatory light. If they are the kind of people who DO think of animals in a lesser light just because of a term of language, then they (IMHO) were insensitive buffoons to begin with, and in such cases, a change of language usage is not going to help them evolve one bit. They would need a lot more help than that."

Paul M.
Paul M5 years ago

Repost ... My own preference is that animals be called by their gender designations when they do not have individual identity names; "bitch", "dog"; "mare" (sad about "female horse" bracket), "stallion"; "ram", "ewe"; "queen", "drone", "worker" (as in bee); etc. I'm OK about "it" when the gender isn't known, and the animal doesn't have a individual identity name; a shark; an ant; a moth; a dinosaur ("female dinosaur" if there is a known gender); a mosquito ("female" … gender); weevil; etc.

On the matter of this article, I think the AP Stylebook got it right ... because I haven't read a convincing argument against their ruling ...

The larger family of issues here is language use awareness; "terrorist", big business seen as "person" legally, etc; very important.

Thank you for your piece Megan. It was worth reading.

Paul M.
Paul M5 years ago

Repost ... Many comments seem to link disagreement with the premiss with a lack of care, sympathy, or affection for animals and the converse to be true.

There isn't any substance to this ...

According to statistics by RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), the number of dogs abandoned between January and April 2010 was 4,966. I imagine all of them had names and were not referred to as "it".

Equally there is a line of comment that sees this article as trivial. Certainly it may seem trivial on the surface to many, but the underlying principals are important, even if there are no changes as desired by the author. Even prompting someone to let the forum know they believe the article is trivial, rather than just move on, is important. The situation of pet dumping is an example of how the bigger concern emerges from the subset of the article.

On the matter of this article, I think the AP Stylebook got it right ...

Kathleen R.
Kathleen R5 years ago


Stacey Toda
Stacey Toda5 years ago

Definitely not an "it"

Carrie-Anne Brown

signed, thanks for sharing :)

Kitty Cather
Kitty Cather5 years ago

not it! thanks!